Friday, 31 May 2013

"And you, old sir, we are told you prospered once" - The Discovery of Priam's Treasure by Heinrich Schliemann in Troy

Thursday, 30 May 2013

"And let these tears, distilling from mine eyes, Be proof of my grief and innocency." The Death of Christopher Marlowe

30 May 1593, 420 years ago, 29 years old poet and playwright Christopher Marlowe was stabbed to death by one Ingram Frizer, allegedly over the reckoning of a bill in a backroom of a house in Deptford, owned by a certain Eleanor Bull, widow.

"When a man's verses cannot be understood, nor a man's good wit seconded with the forward child, understanding, it strikes a man more dead than a great reckoning in a little room." (William Shakespeare, “As You Like It”)

Once the pre-eminent tragedian of Elizabethan England whose plays are still put on major stages worldwide, he is long since overshadowed by his contemporary Shakespeare, even though he had a major influence on his works. Most of his plays survived, but, as with Shakespeare, what we know about the man is sketchy at best and was assembled by fragments such as church records, a few letters, bills and accounts of his fellow men over the last four centuries.

Until quite recently it had been assumed that “Kit” Marlowe had been accidentally killed in a quarrel over the settling of a bill during a pub crawl. A jealous husband was later added for good measure. During the last 80 years, evidence emerged that his death was not that random. According to one theory that is probably not made up out of thin air, he was recruited to work for the Queen’s spymaster Sir Francis Walsingham already while studying at Cambridge.

Earlier in the year of 1593, indications increase that Marlowe was up to his neck in the intrigues of the hotbed of the Fairy Queen’s court and warrants were issued accusing him of agitation and the catch-all of freethinking and atheism. A meeting with the Privy Council did apparently not take place, even though Marlowe was summoned and tried to appear ten days before his death, the man who stabbed him was in the employ of his literary patron, Thomas Walsingham, a relative of Sir Francis.

Whatever might have been the case that actually led to Marlowe’s death – and an accidental stab in a drunken quarrel can still not be ruled out at all – his literary work still stands as one of the most consistent, deep and accessible body of early modern drama and poetry, praised by his contemporaries to this day.

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Monday, 27 May 2013

"Here a great city will be wrought / To spite our neighborhood conceited" - The Foundation of the Peter and Paul Fortress, the original citadel and nucleus of the city of St Petersburg

27 May 1703, 310 years ago at the mouth of the River Neva, Tsar Peter the Great ordered the laying of the foundation stone of the Peter and Paul Fortress, the original citadel and nucleus of the city of St Petersburg.
“On a deserted, wave-swept shore, / He stood – in his mind great thoughts grow – / And gazed afar. The northern river / Sped on its wide course him before; / One humble skiff cut the waves’ silver. / On banks of mosses and wet grass / Black huts were dotted there by chance – / The miserable Finn’s abode; / The wood unknown to the rays / Of the dull sun, by clouds stowed, / Hummed all around. And he thought so: / ‘The Swede from here will be frightened; / Here a great city will be wrought / To spite our neighborhood conceited. / From here by Nature we’re destined / To cut a door to Europe wide, / To step with a strong foot by waters. / Here, by the new for them sea-paths, / Ships of all flags will come to us – / And on all seas our great feast opens.’ (Alexander Pushkin, “The Bronze Horseman”)

“View of the Neva and the Peter and Paul fortress” by V. S. Sadovnikov (1847)

Located on the small Hare’s Island, the last island in the delta of the river, the Peter and Paul Fortress was planned by Peter the Great as springboard for his new capital. The region had been taken from the Swedes during the Great Northern War only four weeks before and, since his attempts to reform Mother Russia were met with fierce resistance by almost everyone, Peter decided to start here all over again. Naming the place after St Peter (of course), he invited engineers, artisans and artists from Western Europe and banned the building of stone structures in the rest of his empire to force local talent to come to the banks of the Neva. One of the methods that endeared him so much to his contemporary subjects.

 A panoramic view of the city from 1753

However, Peter’s project was crowned with success – within two centuries, St Petersburg’s population grew to one and a half million people, the city itself housing the most palaces in Europe, second only to Venice, despite the local peculiarities of being built in a swamp on the same latitude as the southern tip of Greenland. The list of famous sons and daughters of the city is equally impressive, from all Tsars to the likes of Pushkin and Dostoevsky.

Ivan Aivazovsky's Turner-like capture of a St Petersburg sunrise from 1847

The 20th made St Petersburg the city of three revolutions, the one of 1905, the February and the October Revolution of 1917 and changed its name accordingly, removing the German parts during World War I to be called Petrograd and to Leningrad in 1924. The terrible 872 day siege followed in 1941 and the city remains, if not the second capital like in the days of the Tsars, the second largest city of Russia and is called St Petersburg again since 1991.

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Saturday, 25 May 2013

“It was a dark and stormy night" - Edward Bulwer-Lytton's 210th Birthday in 2013

25 March 1803, 210 years, novelist, playwright and politician Edward Bulwer-Lytton was born in London

“It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents, except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the housetops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness.” (Bulwer-Lytton, “Paul Clifford”, 1830)

Henry William Pickersgill: “Edward George Earle Lytton Bulwer Lytton, 1st Baron Lytton” (1831)

Probably best known today as an author of early Victorian fiction that fails to please today’s refined tastes and the man who wrote the book behind the various “Last Days of Pompeii” sandal movies, Bulwer-Lytton wrote a variety of fiction in his day, ranging from historical fiction, the occult and science fiction up to fictionalising the Hollow Earth theory that became a much cherished myth among subsequent authors of the fantastic genre as well as various secret societies. Some of them even claimed Bulwer-Lytton as one of their own to be always met with disdain during his lifetime.

Hablot Knight Browne "Phiz": "A Caricature of Edward Bulwer Lytton" (1840)

Bulwer-Lytton coined phrases like the  "the great unwashed","the pen is mightier than the sword" and "pursuit of the almighty dollar" (the term “almighty dollar” was invented by Washington Irving 20 years before though), probably responsible, too, for labelling the Germans "Das Volk der Dichter und Denker“ (people of poets and thinkers), and, being born in a well-off family but cut off from his allowance by his mother for marrying an Irish village beauty, made a living on his own, as author as well as a politician, the latter role gaining him a peerage in 1868. The marriage itself ended in estrangement and divorced Rosina did her best to make his life a living hell, from publishing a novel satirising her husband to live-long slandering. When her letters were found and published, her grandson commented it was like “opening a drawer full of dead wasps. Their venom is now powerless to hurt, but they still produce a shudder“. Following up from Charles Schulz’s idea to have Snoopy write novels inspired by Bulwer-Lytton’s entry “It was a dark and stormy night”, Professor Scott E. Rice, English Department of San Jose State University, came up with the idea to "to compose the opening sentence to the worst of all possible novels" – the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest, held to this day.

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Friday, 24 May 2013

"There were angels dining at the Ritz"

24 May 1906, the London Ritz opened in Piccadilly.

“That certain night, the night we met,
There was magic abroad in the air,
There were angels dining at the Ritz
And A Nightingale Sang In Berkeley Square.“ (Eric Maschwitz / Manning Sherwin)

The Ritz shortly after its opening in 1906.

When Swiss hotelier César Ritz got the boot at the Savoy, he decided to open something newer, better, more Edwardian. He chose a Neoclassicistic Belle Époque building in Piccadilly with arcades in the style of the Parisian Rue de Rivoli and the modern establishment became a smashing success in terms of luxury and service – a bathroom in every suite was unheard of, but soon became a standard in providing accommodation for travellers – or long-term lodgers.

Ritz, who managed the hotel personally for many years, haute cuisine and establishments like the famous Palm Court, the tea room that harboured royalty as well as politicians like Churchill or de Gaulle and accomplished artists like Noel Coward, Evelyn Waugh and Charlie Chaplin as regulars who took their tea at the Ritz.

The place underwent a major 10 years renovation by the end of the 1990s and, restored allegedly to former grandeur, still is one of London’s top addresses and in the headlines every now and then, for celebrities visiting, tax evasion of its proprietors and last station. Margaret Thatcher had a stroke at the Ritz while convalescing.

“Putting on the Ritz”, as Irving Berlin phrased it in 1929, became a byword for a luxurious establishment, a place mentioned in films, songs and novels, where angels indeed dine at the Ritz.

The song quoted above was written in 1939,  sung by Vera Lynn in 1940 and became one of the most famous wartime tunes:

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Thursday, 23 May 2013

"Vanitas vanitatum et omnia vanitas" - Fra Girolamo Savonarola 's Execution

23 May 1498, 515 years ago Fra Girolamo Savonarola was hanged and burned at the stake on Florence’s Piazza della Signorina where he had set the torch to piles of books, fineries, gaming tables, musical instruments and works of art the year before in the “Bonfire of Vanities”.

“The reason why I entered into a religious order is this: first, the great misery of the world, the wickedness of men, the rapes, the adulteries, the thefts, the pride, the idolatry, the vile curses, for the world has come to such a state that one can no longer find anyone who does good” (Girolamo Savonarola)

 Ludwig von Langenmantel is called “Savonarola Preaching Against Prodigality” (1879)

The de facto ruler of Florence for four years became a fire and brimstone preacher after he quitted his studies of medicine and philosophy and joined the Black Friars. In pre-Reformatory and revolutionary fervour, Savonarola preached against clerical corruption, the tyrannical nobility, mistreatment of the poor and a general moral decline. With Northern Italy, in upheaval anyway during the Italian Wars and Charles VIII’s marauding French army in the surroundings, Fra Girolamo assembled a huge following.

Declaring Florence the New Jerusalem, the city’s Medici rulers were unceremoniously walked Spanish out of the place and a Republic was proclaimed. Then Savonarola’s campaign to rid the city of vice began. Everything that might have given him or his inner circle, the Frateschi, a frown on their Puritan visages was penalised – from sodomy to gaudy dresses – and the jeunesse dorée of New Jerusalem was organised into a militia, patrolling the streets and curbing vice. With clubs.

Fra Bartolomeo (1472 - 1517): "Portrait of Savonarola" (around 1498)

When Savonarola turned Prophet as well, presaging general mayhem for the Italian city states and the Papacy, but wealth and fortune for the Florentine righteous and threatened to ally with the French, the Borgia pope Alexander VI decided he’d had it with Savonarola. He was excommunicated in 1497, the city of Florence in toto threatened with excommunication if they decided to harbour him further. The little book of his collected own prophesies that Fra Girolamo sent to Alexander didn’t help to mollify the pope either.

He finally lost the grip on his audience, was imprisoned by the mob and forced to revoke all of his visions and got executed. Florence became a hereditary dukedom again. Savonarola is venerated by most Protestant churches as a martyr and Pope John Paul II initiated his beatification in 1998.

Anonymous painting showing  Savonarola's execution in the Piazza della Signoria (1498)

Wednesday, 22 May 2013

"... about the wizard, the charlatan, the minotaur..." on Richard Wagner's 200th Birthday in 2013

22 May 1813, Richard Wagner was born in Leipzig.

“All things considered, I could never have survived my youth without Wagnerian music. For I seemed condemned to the society of Germans. If a man wishes to rid himself of a feeling of unbearable oppression, he may have to take to hashish. Well, I had to take to Wagner” (Friedrich Nietzsche)

“Of Modern Mythology: Wagner’s deification in Bayreuth” (Ulk, Berlin 1876)

Richard Wagner is undoubtedly one of the most important composers of the 19th century. He changed the whole being of serious music not only by his innovative use of harmonies and orchestration, but by understanding and staging music not only as a medium experienceable with one but with all senses, as a total work of art (Gesamtkunstwerk).

While this view permeated demands on artists as well as the audience, Wagner went one step further, up to the point of enacting his works with the conception of a sacred festival drama as an enhancement and even substitute of religion. He wrote music with a purpose, expressing thought and feeling and attributing the elements to the various characters of his music dramas, condensing it in the leitmotif, audible when the character appears on stage.

A monochrome showing the Bayreuth Festspielhaus in 1895

The beguiling rush of his music, the leitmotif and the never-ending melody, especially in his late work, cast a spell on the audience that was and is mostly unaware of what exactly Wagner intended to transport with his music. Especially the good middle- and upper class clientele would have probably been quite shocked if they comprehended the revolutionary content and metafiction of Wagner’s music dramas, telling sensual, nerve- and intellectually inciting and irritating tales of not only the vie de la bohème but a society beyond plutocracy on grounds of liberty, equality, fraternity and universal love. The tragicomical paradox of Wagner’s reception, as Thomas Mann put it once.

Anton Werner: "Revealing the Wagner Memorial in Berlin" (1908)

In terms of reception, the professed and outspoken anti-Semite, Wagner and his work experienced the notorious reframing and excess of the Third Reich’s lunatic petit bourgeois understanding of the world that stained indulgence in his art within living memory, much like the re-appearing bloodstains in Wilde’s Canterville Chase.

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Sunday, 19 May 2013

"... those whose idea of fun was spending Sunday afternoon in the shed with an oily rag, or marching on Aqaba." - the Death of T. E. Lawrence

19 May 1935, Thomas Edward Lawrence, Lawrence of Arabia, died in Bovington Camp in Dorset from the injuries he received in a motorcycle crash 6 days before.

"I deem him one of the greatest beings alive in our time. I do not see his like elsewhere. I fear whatever our need we shall never see his like again." (Winston Churchill)

Lawrence on a Brough Superior SS100, the bike he met the accident with. The neurosurgeon attending him in Bovington Camp, Hugh Cairns, was prominent in the implementation of a mandatory wearing of crash helmets for military and civilian motorcyclists.

Scholar, archaeologist, author, poet, secret agent and “a mighty warrior” (Lowell Thomas), T.E. Lawrence became an iconic figure for leading the Arab Revolt in the Middle East against the Ottoman Empire during the First World War.

Two British archaeologists during the excavations of Carchemish in present-day Syria before the Great War, back then a part of the Ottoman Empire: T.E. Lawrence and Leonard Woolley in the spring of 1913. One of them was a spy.

Deeply disenchanted about British and French treatment of his former Arab allies and friends under the Sykes-Picot Agreement, mostly denying them political independence outside of the Arab Peninsula, Col Lawrence withdrew and served from 1922 -1935 as a common soldier in the RAF, denying official honours, while the media styled him, who played an admittedly major role in a rather obscure war theatre, a hero. A photo show and later a film about being “With Allenby in Palestine and Lawrence in Arabia“ and a book “With Lawrence in Arabia“ by the American writer and broadcaster Lowell Thomas became a huge success and made Lawrence of Arabia into the household name he is to this day.

T.E. Lawrence and Lowell Thomas in 1920, posing for PR shots back home in England

With all the personal merits and flaws making El Aurens a “heap of broken images” combined with his “genius for backing into the limelight" (Thomas), he is probably the best example of a modern knight errant, carrying a copy of Malory’s “Morte D'Arthur” with him during the whole Arab campaign, with an image inflated by the media for a public that was in desperate need of a counterdraft to the anonymous horrors of a mechanised war.

"I think you are another of these desert-loving English"
Lawrence striking a pose in 1917 during the war

The income generated by Lawrence’s books and royalties for Thomas’ show went directly to the RAF Benevolent Fund or for archaeological, environmental, or academic projects that exists today still.

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Friday, 17 May 2013

"You will see that Talleyrand will die in his bed." - The death of “le diable boiteux” in 1838.

17 May 1838, 175 years ago, Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord died at the age of 84 in Paris.

"Love of glory can only create a great hero; contempt of glory creates a great man." (Talleyrand)

 French caricature from 1815 after Napoleon’s fall with the title: Monsieur Tout-á-tous" ("Gentlemen [of a kind] among one another").

Nicknamed “le diable boiteux”, the lame devil, because of a congentinal left leg limp, Talleyrand was unable to pursue a military career and entered church service, left it in 1789 to become a nominal bourgeois, was consecrated as Bishop of Autun and became one of the finest diplomats and wits and epicureans the world has ever seen.

With six years of exile, first in London and later in the young US during the Reign of Terror, he came back as foreign minister and thus survived six different regimes in France, being still in office after the fall of Napoleon in 1815. Talleyrand had approached the Allies half a year before the Battle of Waterloo, coining the phrase “It is the beginning of the end” for the Emperor’s Hundred Days and represented the new Bourbon government during the Congress of Vienna. He saw the seventh change of French government during the July Revolution in 1830 and was the “Citizen King’s” Louis Philippe’s ambassador in London.

Sir David Wilkie (1785 - 1841):  "Talleyrand in London" (1834)

With only one major failure in his political career, the “XYZ Affair” and the following Quasi War with the US (1798 – 1800), he was a bon vivant, a ladies’ man, sired a number of illegitimate children and proverbially corrupt, shrewd and loyal only to Talleyrand, thereby probably serving France herself and not the individual consecutive French governments he was employed by.
Napoleon’s dictum from 1817, uttered in his exile in St Helena, is denotive: “"What makes me think that there can be no God who metes out punishment, is that good people are so often unhappy and rascals prosperous. You will see that Talleyrand will die in his bed."

"The lame leading the blind" - Talleyrand and a young Palmerston (1832)

He did, returning officially to the folds of the Church and was given the last rites on his deathbed, insisting on receiving them with the full honours of a bishop. Prince Metternich allegedly commented on Talleyrand’s demise: “"I wonder what he meant by that?"

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Thursday, 16 May 2013

The Queen of Art Déco - On Tamara de Lempicka's 115th Birthday in 2013

16 May 1898: Today, 115 years ago, the Polish painter Tamara de Lempicka was born in Warsaw.

"I was the first woman to paint cleanly, and that was the basis of my success. From a hundred pictures, mine will always stand out. And so the galleries began to hang my work in their best rooms, always in the middle, because my painting was attractive. It was precise. It was 'finished'." (Tamara de Lempicka)

De Lempicka in her studio in 1928, painting the portrait of her husband, photographed by Thérèse Bonney

Living in St Petersburg during the revolution, de Lempicka flew to Paris with her husband, where she had her breakthrough after seven years of a struggling poor artist’s life. Her paintings combining cool sobriety with a certain Renaissance influence and clear lines and colours with a mostly sensual sujet found an enthusiastic audience during the 1925 Exposition internationale des Arts Décoratifs et industriels modernes, a world fair of art, crafts and industrial design, minting the term “Art Deco” out of “Arts Décoratifs“.

“Portrait of a Man”, Tadeusz de Lempicki, shown as an epigonic dandy (1928)

She quickly became "the first woman artist to be a glamour star", adding the “de” to her name, delivered a series of well-paid Art Deco paintings, portraits and magazine covers, leading the iconic life of a socialite of the Roaring Twenties. Public interest in Art Deco paintings faded in the mid-1930s, de Lempicka decided to stay in the US with her new husband and remained there when the lights went out in Europe. She continued to paint now and then but her work was rather not well received in the post-war US and she withdrew into likewise ageing high society circles, mourning the lost glamour of the Jazz Age.

Tamara de Lempicka: ""La bella Rafaela"

De Lempicka died in Mexico in 1980 and willed her ashes to be strewn over the volcano Popocatepetl, diva to the last. Her colourful life inspired a stage play and, very recently, a novel, her work is still cherished among Art Deco connoisseurs and admirers of 20th century art.

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